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Canadian scientists use math to kill cancer

Published time: June 15, 2013 03:47
Reuters / Oleg Popov

Reuters / Oleg Popov

Researchers in Canada are pinning their hopes on advanced mathematics in the fight against cancer, using sophisticated models to enhance engineered viruses that home in on and destroy cancerous cells.

Nature Communications has just published a paper authored by Ottawa researchers that deals with the use of oncolytic viruses, a fairly new method that involves the engineering of intentionally infecting and killing tumors in the human body while avoiding harm to healthy tissue.

Oncolytic virus human trials have so far been very limited, but the research produced by the Canadian team could have wide repercussions in their use. Dr. John Bell and the paper’s co-author Dr. Mads Kaern have developed mathematical models that could altogether bypass expensive and time-consuming trials by using simulations instead.

“By using these mathematical models to predict how viral modifications would actually impact cancer cells and normal cells, we are able to accelerate the pace of research,” says Kaern.

The models explore the infection cycle of the cancerous cells as they are attacked by the engineered viruses, and from there researchers can examine the spread and the defense mechanisms released by the tumor cells.

Using the results from those simulations, scientists can explore how to modify the genome, or the genetic structure of the virus, to counter the anti-viral defenses of the cancer cells. That represents a significant time-saving measure without before ever using live biological specimens, such as tumor-bearing mice.

According to the research team, the raw mathematical models have so far been surprisingly accurate.

“What is remarkable is how well we could actually predict the experimental outcome based on computational analysis. This work creates a useful framework for developing similar types of mathematical models in the fight against cancer,” says Bell.

The use of oncolytic viruses, a method known as virotherapy, has come a long way. Initially, researchers attempted to thwart cancer cells using naturally-occurring oncolytic viruses, such as the poliovirus, the Coxsackie virus and others. Some clinical trials have gone further, such as the use of the “T-VEC” virus, which normally causes cold sores, to help in the treatment of melanoma, or skin cancer.

Early success with chemotherapy and radiation for treating cancer into remission caused virotherapy to become sidelined in cancer research, but progress with model-based methods using engineered cancer-killing viruses could well change all that.

Still, researchers caution that their results with mathematical models will be unlikely to deliver a cure-all solution to cancer treatment, though the Canadian team’s research still represents an exciting development.

“The most fascinating thing is to challenge existing knowledge represented in a mathematical model and try to understand why these models sometimes fail. It’s a very exciting opportunity to be a part of this, and I am glad that our efforts in training students in computational cell biology have resulted in such a significant advancement,” says Kaern.

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